Warframe Has the Best Worldbuilding In Video Games

(This article contains a discussion of the storyline of Warframe. It contains many things that some people may consider spoilers. Trust me. Read it.)

Warframe is a free-to-play online third-person sci-fi shooter by Ontario developer Digital Extremes where you control a cool, acrobatic robo-warrior in a grindy co-op game where the PR tagline is “ninjas play free”. You fight space nazis, mechanized capitalists, and a bioplague in a handful of standard mission types to get loot and level up your gear.

Warframe, written and designed by Creative Director Steve Sinclair, Lead Writer Cam Rogers, and a team of other designers and writers, is the story of a dark future set in a fallen posthuman solar empire, where the generational victims of the cruel, long-lost Orokin are in constant conflict and where solidarity and empathy are the strongest forces against an apparently-inevitable cosmic struggle borne out of the resonating echoes of exploitation and familial loss.

The Moon came back.

No one told stories about its destruction, in the same way that no one told stories about the fall of Rome, or Dubai, or Io Prime. It was a fact, not a myth. But the throne of the Golden Lords reappeared above the world.

They say the Tenno did it. They say the Tenno are reviving the Empire, and we will be their slaves. They say the Tenno are finally going to kill the Last Executor and finish the bloody slaughter they began generations ago. They say the Tenno are sorry, so sorry, and they have recreated Lua as a monument.

The next night, a Grineer patrol killed my cousin. He had snuck out to find food.

When you start Warframe in its current version (29.x.x), you awaken after a dreamlike introductory vision of an ancient war. You embody a biomechanical warrior called a warframe, sought by the militant Grineer. Guided by transmissions from the mysterious Lotus, you escape using a derelict landing craft to an orbiter managed by Ordis, an AI-like Cephalon who recognizes you as his beloved Operator.

As you proceed across the Solar system, you are gradually introduced to the major factions of this world. The Grineer are a clone army, suffering from terrible degeneration of their bodies, but obsessed with conformity and strength to the degree that any sign of empathy or deviation is considered a capital offense. The Corpus are a hypercapitalist merchant empire, using their technology and robotics to rule and experiment upon the weak. The Infestation is a strange technoplague, colonizing flesh and metal with equal ease to consume everything into its hive mind. You are a Tenno, a survivor of an ancient warrior culture who seeks to maintain balance and protect the weaker civilians. Finally, there are the echoes of the Orokin: the fallen empire that created all the other factions and still exerts influence via ancient treasures and half-functioning security systems that exert mental control over anyone who comes within their grasp.

My name is Cephalon Sigma. I reside in the Weave, and embody the Seventh Precept by tracking all of my brethren. Long ago I committed a terrible sin against my betters. I cannot remember what I did. This is my punishment.

I can see each of my brethren, tiny shards of glass in scattered datascapes. There are too many of some of them. Too few of others. They are not machines. They do not deserve to be mass-produced. Do… do machines deserve to be mass-produced? I can consider this question. This is my punishment.

There are things which are not my brethren in the Weave. They are not made of glass. They are not made of souls. Some are tiny, obedient, curious. Some are immense, resentful, infinitely sad. I do not look at them, but I see them. This is my punishment.

What did I do? What did they do? I hear a whisper in the Weave, a song backed by Naga drums. “All is silent in the calm,” it whispers. “Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky,” it sings.

You begin to get a feeling for this setting. While there are certainly lore dumps to read in the game’s Codex, you pick most of it up through osmosis or interactive story. You help cyborg debt-slaves take back a sliver of power from the cruel megacorp that holds their literal body parts as collateral. You make guesses at the nature of the Orokin from the fact that their spaceships had five-meter-tall ceilings and then notice that their structures are all made of meat and bone covered up with gold leaf. You realize that every creature in the Infestation is recognizable as an infected version of some other enemy unit… except for a few, more troubling examples.

There’s a consistency to the world’s look and feel that lends itself to this sort of slow discovery. In other shooters with a large cast of enemies, enemy units feel ontologically distinct from player characters: they work by different rules and use different, less-cool equipment. In Warframe, you can craft and use virtually every weapon you see on an enemy, leading to the unsettling experience of hearing your own gun make the sound that you recognize as making Heavy Gunners a priority target.

And then, startlingly late, tens of hours into the game, the plot starts in earnest.

My great-grandmother first signed on to work the Venusian processors, back when the Corpus were just tapping the busted old mountaintop terravents, before Nef Anyo’s damned scheme.

She sold her legs to buy a pair of hands to replace the ones that got frostbitten. Sold her lungs to pay for the busted servos in her knuckles. Sold her jaw for a new maintenance contract on her oxygenator. I’m still working off the food siphon.

They say the Corpus are purpose-bred. Well, now so are we. When I was born, my fathers knew I’d be the one to inherit their debts. They died with more debt than they were born with.

What would it be like, to not know in every waking moment the history that weighs your life down and keeps you underground? Would it be better to think I was free?

Until “Natah”, quests in Warframe are loose narrative wrapped around rather standard missions. You pick them up in menus or by talking to an NPC in an online social space, and then you’re running a normal mission type with custom voice lines for the mission guidance. Often, these serve as sort of delayed tutorials; you have Maroo guiding you through spy missions, or Simaris asking you to do Synthesis scans during other missions.

“Natah”, however, starts with a mystery. In some missions on Uranus, you can encounter strange drones that look like little you’ve seen before. They’re bifurcated, joined only at the head, and float strangely. They’re not hostile, but bear a resemblance to the strange giant creature you may have seen roaming the Plains of Eidolon on Earth. When you scan them for more information, you start a quest that exposes the history of your leader, the Lotus.

Because Warframe so diligently sets up its world and its factions, these things can immediately be recognized as not only new, but alien. The game has established a visual language, letting you recognize who you’re up against as easily as reading text, only to present you with something that doesn’t even register as letters. They do not match any existing societies you’ve met, which is unsettling: you’ve potentially played hours and hours of the game without encountering this new group, the Sentients.

I always liked the stories of the Old War. The brave Tenno fighting against the evil Sentients, creatures from another solar system. And then the Tenno betraying the oppressive Orokin, murdering them all at the celebration that was meant to mean an end to the violence.

The Orokin were cruel, conceited, capricious. They ruined every planet in the Origin system and then terraformed them anew only to ruin them again. They stole children, made monsters, tore space itself apart. But they were still human.

The Tenno are something else. I’ve heard backwater primitives call them gods. I’ve heard others whisper about Void demons. They summon storms, bend time, shatter minds. But I’ve seen them, met them. They don’t act like gods. They act like confused children.

With the proper guidance, we can use them to wipe this system clean of the corrupt and the cruel, forging a peace out of fire and blade. And anyone who stands against us doesn’t have a place in that peace. The old Tenno from the stories would understand.

No cost too great. No blood too precious.

This is one of Warframe‘s great tricks. It gives you a consistent world, one you can trust, so that when it disrupts that world, you easily believe that it is doing so intentionally. And in doing so, it says two simple but important things: people and problems exist as part of immense systems that stretch far back into history; and yet these systems can be exposed for what they are and changed.

Once you encounter the Sentients, inhuman survivors of the Orokin’s colonization efforts, you are presented with the next revelation, one which gives you a more personal stake in the growing solar conflict. There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding “The Second Dream”. As Dominic Tarason explains, “It is here, nearly 40 hours into the game, you are presented for the first time with the character creation screen.” Previously, you were only your Warframes, but now you finally have an identity in-game and thus a personal investment.

You’ve been learning about and shaping this world for a long time before Warframe finally allows you to live in it. And you know very well that, without a lot of work and cooperation, it is not a world that anyone would want to live in.

If you had to choose between dying and killing, what would you do? If you were looking someone in the face and it was you or them? What if it was you or someone, anyone, and you had to choose who you would sacrifice?

I was just a child.

We didn’t have many children, as a rule. When you live forever, these things can wait. As a result, my entire culture knew me, followed my growth, my development. My entire culture knew about my diagnosis.

They took me to the Yuvan Theatre. They told me it was better for me to pick someone my age, by which they meant at my stage of development. The children looked like me, but they were half as old. Their right arms were decorated so you could imagine them with the control circuitry installed.

Continuity is not a replacement. It is a reshaping, a subsuming, an overlay. Like all of our magic, it is a trick, a half-fraud. I can still hear her in here with me, after all these centuries.

We were—are—evil, by our very nature. The only way for us to stop is to die.

And we live a very, very long time.

Everything wrong in the world of Warframe is, at its root, the fault of the Orokin. There are certainly characters who choose to do evil, but the game recognizes that evil is never that simple. The Orokin empire set up the circumstances for all of the misery in the game’s world, manufactured its tools of oppression, and created the rivalries that echo through its history.

The Sentients, the Tenno, the Grineer, the Corpus, the Infestation: they are all generational victims of the cruelty and selfish indifference of a group with more power and resources than could ever be conscionable. Beyond their general colonial oppression, the Orokin perpetuated their empire by literally transferring their consciousnesses into the bodies of their subjects against their wills.

The Orokin deserved to die. To continue being Orokin was an ongoing act of abuse and oppression. And the wars and tragedies that continue in the world of Warframe are echoes of that cruelty, victims of abuse striking out at or desperately trying to emulate their long-destroyed oppressors.

What am I? My mother was a miner, using her many hands to scrape away the soil. I emerged from my father’s womb even as he watched over the system, coordinating and organizing my people.

I was born to be clever. To predict, to plan, to conceive. The others resent the Golden Lords for stealing their fertility from them, but I never cared for offspring. I resent the Golden Lords for creating us at all.

I finally understood during the eternal trip through the poison realm, wisdom whispered from within my skulls. None of us asked to be brought into this world. From my place in our great and just fleet, I have an opportunity to correct that error. I can provide the ultimate mercy for the people of Origin.

Trust me. It’s better this way.

The rich world of Warframe is made possible through a dedication to worldbuilding by its creators. They constructed the game with a consistent visual language, with a setting aware of history and systems, and with an ontological consistency that encourages players to gain a gradual and deep understanding of the fictional universe.

Thus, when new aspects of the game are revealed or released, players are equipped to understand how these new elements fit into the game world and how they are tied to the generational history of the Origin System. This then feeds into the play itself, providing emotional motivation for the combat that makes up most of the player’s activities.

This writing and design work is more clever and thorough than most any other game you’ll find, and the fact that it is done in service of a free-to-play game about space ninjas is delightful. It’s an example that should be studied by any developer who wants to create a rich game world.

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